Stonehill, Diokno, Marcos – and Stan Lee
Nearly every Marvel blockbuster featured a cameo by lean, dapper, mustached Stan Lee. Few, if any, Filipinos chuckling over such scenes know that Lee could’ve had a cameo role in our history as well.
It would’ve been due to an American GI, Harry Stonehill, who made it big in the Philippines after World War II. Lee told the story in his autobiography, “Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee,” written with George Mair in 2002. According to him, it happened like this: “After the war, he [Stonehill] said to me, ‘Hey Stan, come to the Philippines with me.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘I found out that they don’t have Christmas cards there. I’m going to buy a batch of Christmas cards and start a business.’ I said, ‘I love ya, Harry, but you’re a lunatic.’ And I went back to my comics and he went off to the Philippines. To make a long story short, a few years later, he was the wealthiest man in the Philippines. He was a billionaire.”
Lee went on to write: “As the months and years went by, I kept hearing from Harry. It seemed he now owned the franchise for US Tobacco. Then I learned he had built a large glass-manufacturing company. Next time I heard he had created a fast-growing import-export company. It went on and on. Bottom line: After a few years my old army pal, Harry, had become the wealthiest man in the Philippines!
“I remember once writing to him and asking, ‘What kind of car are you driving?’ because we always used to talk about cars. He wrote back, ‘Stan, I own half of the cars here in the Philippines. I’ve got dealerships.’”
Lee concluded with this wry observation: “Yep, any time my ego needs deflating, I remember how I was too smart to leave my comic books and go into business with ol’ Harry!”
In an interview in 2002 — the year his book was published, and also the year Harry Stonehill died — Stan Lee summarized his friend’s meteoric rise and fall in the Philippines: “To make a long story short, a few years later, he was the wealthiest man in the Philippines. He was a billionaire. He started with the cards, but that was just nonsense. He ended up owning an import/export line with god knows how many steamships, I think he had the American Tobacco franchise, he started glass factories — he was the biggest thing in the Philippines. At some point, the government fell because of him — there were accusations of graft and corruption — and he claims that the CIA or the FBI or some government agency wanted to get him out of there because he had become more powerful and influential than the United States government. And he started suing the United States government, and the lawsuit — as far as I know — is still going on. They had to get him out of the Philippines by submarine — he thought they were going to kill him — and he ended up in Switzerland and England and all over.”
There’s a bit of exaggeration and some fuzzy “facts” in Lee’s summary of his friend’s adventures, but he essentially got the point. Starting out as an enterprising GI, Stonehill ended up being a big player in Philippine tobacco and hit upon the scheme of making a real estate killing by embarking on land reclamation to create land along Manila Bay. Along the way, he built up a network of Filipino political allies whose pockets he lined to continue making heaps of money on his own. Press reports in the early 1960s estimated that he had a $50-million business empire (Republic Glass Corp., Philippine Tobacco Corp., Philippine Cotton Corp., American Asiatic Oil Corp., Far East Publishing, to name a few—worth roughly $388,415,000 in contemporary dollar values).
Congress had held hearings on Stonehill in 1960. He proved bulletproof until 1962, when a former associate accused him of attempted murder. Secretary of Justice Jose W. Diokno ordered raids on Stonehill’s offices; among the documents seized were notebooks itemizing the government officials on Stonehill’s payroll, with Ferdinand Marcos allegedly at the top of the list. Stonehill was arrested and charged with tax evasion, economic sabotage, blackmail and corrupting public officials. Five months later, to Diokno’s fury, President Diosdado Macapagal intervened and ordered Stonehill deported (he also fired Diokno).